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Not a good time for possible school tax

The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

For a few weeks now, the folks at the Aspen Education Foundation have been floating the idea of a sales tax increase that would raise enough money to stave off future budget cuts in the Aspen School District. While revenue problems next year and beyond are a likely reality for the local school system as well as public-

education systems across the state, we believe the placing of a tax question on the upcoming November ballot is premature and deserves a lot more research and consideration than eight months will allow.

At Tuesday’s Aspen Chamber Resort Association meeting, Aspen Education Foundation interim director Robin Hamill said his nonprofit group isn’t yet calling the idea a “proposal.” As he said that, a PowerPoint screen flashed the header “proposal” along with a list of items that outlined various talking points behind the foundation’s preliminary concept.

To twist an old cliche, if it looks like a duck and acts like a duck, then it probably isn’t a moose. Call the foundation’s idea what you like, but to us it’s a sales tax proposal, and there are a lot of good reasons to postpone it.

First and foremost, at this point there’s no way to accurately gauge the severity of the revenue crunch that the district faces. The financial models that estimate state support for local school systems are continually spitting out different figures. Past history tells us that there is a lack of budget clarity every year, seemingly up until the last minute, and then some money is found through state, federal or other sources.

It’s true that the Aspen School District has had to come up with $2.4 million in cuts over the past two years. The projected deficit for the 2012-13 school year stands at about $300,000, down from an earlier projection of $700,000. Superintendent John Maloy has said the outlook for the 2013-14 school year is even more concerning, and he has estimated $1.2 million in cuts.

Given the previous budget slashes, attained through employee attrition and a focus on nonessential expenditures, future cuts likely would be more serious. The threat is that they will involve teaching personnel, resulting in bigger class sizes and a corresponding decrease in educational quality. But we don’t really know if the $1.2 million shortfall will happen, given the state’s

merry-go-round approach to funding local school systems and the fluctuating nature of property tax collections that are dedicated to education.

The foundation is talking about setting up an independent taxing authority that would dole out the money should local voters approve a sales tax for the school system. This is another troubling aspect to the plan. Another level of bureaucracy standing between taxpayers and local schools sounds like another potential problem, not a solution. How would this entity dole out the money? Would it squabble with the local school board over how the money is spent? Do we really need what would amount to a second school board of sorts for the local school district? Questions abound, and eight months in a rush to a public vote doesn’t seem like enough time to find the answers.

Another issue is the current stability of the foundation itself. Hamill is the nonprofit’s third executive director in a year. While it’s commendable that the foundation is looking outside the box to find solutions to local education funding dilemmas, it also seems disconcerting to hand over the reins of such a massive undertaking to an organization that obviously has some internal issues that ought to be ironed out. We’d like to see the foundation continue to work on private fund-raising efforts for local schools, an area in which it excels.

There also are economic considerations. A half-cent sales tax, which was mentioned in the foundation’s “non-

proposal,” would generate an estimated $2.5 million in the city alone. (The foundation has mentioned a citywide, countywide or districtwide tax.) But Aspen shoppers already pay 9 cents on every dollar of sales, and raising the tax to 9.5 cents puts another burden on working families and individuals struggling to make ends meet in a community with one of the highest costs of living in the country.

The foundation’s concept has some innovative qualities, including the possible emulation of a successful tax-for-schools project in Steamboat Springs. But a couple of years of community discussion, with the goal of formulating a more detailed plan, would make us feel more comfortable about supporting yet another tax on the backs of Aspen-area visitors and residents. 2012 is not the time for this.


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